This week, as we begin preparing for the start of the academic year, consider where and how the Lord is calling you to serve Him.
By: Susan Doyle, Guest Contributor
You will likely recall the 2014 tragic death of James Foley, a journalist-videographer working in the Middle East. Held captive by ISIS for two years, he was ultimately — brutally — beheaded in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. What fewer will know is that this was actually Foley’s second captivity. In 2011, he was kidnapped in Libya while covering the uprising there, but was released after a month and a half. Following his release, Foley wrote a piece for the alumni magazine of his alma mater, Marquette University, in which he shared his harrowing experience, and importantly for us here, his experience of prayer. While in captivity, Foley knew his mother and grandmother would be praying the Rosary for him so he prayed it as well, knowing they would be united in its praying. “If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”
Foley was raised by parents who clearly taught him how to build the interior fortress that became his final, safest refuge. I don’t know if he attended Catholic school or a parish religious education program. But Jim Foley’s parents, no doubt, were assisted in their task by catechists who cooperated with the Foley’s in showing young Jim how to lay the brick and mix the mortar.
The work of catechesis is to link arms with those we teach and tether them to our own teachers, and above all, Jesus Himself. It is the human chain that reaches into eternity. Indeed, the work of echoing Jesus Christ is far more than simply relaying information to be studied and memorized. To be a catechist requires loving the other, with great fortitude, into Truth. Our Holy Father declared, in an audience to catechists, that “‘being’ a catechist…is the vocation, not ‘working’ as a catechist…because it involves all your life. It means guiding towards the encounter with Jesus with words and with life, with your witness.” In his letter to Marquette alumni, Foley revealed what is truest about himself: with externals stripped away, he understood what — rather, Whom — made him most human, and in his darkest moment, he knew how to approach Him. This is not a Truth taught by telling. Its most compelling and irresistible teaching is done by showing.
As with any vocation, being is central to the call, and the doing is simply how it is expressed. The call of the catechist means looking at the person before oneself, and inviting that person to gaze at Our Lord with her. Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, reminded us in Deus Caritas Est that the moment of this gaze, in which one chooses to be Christian, “is an encounter…with a Person.” Our faith is transmitted in person, in relationship. A well-known painting, Light of the World, by William Holman Hunt, is based on the quote from Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” The door on which Christ knocks has no knob on the outside with which He may enter; it is for the soul on the other side to let Him in. It is the work of the catechist to stand with the soul on the inside and say, “See, He awaits you! Let us go meet Him!”
In my experience, there are some who believe they are not suited to teach the Faith in our religious education programs because of age, or because of not having had their own children. A visit to my parish, Blessed Sacrament, would happily disavow them of that preconceived notion! We have plenty of singles who live their spiritual paternity and maternity by serving as catechists. We also have plenty of seniors — including octogenarians — who are enthusiastic teachers of the Faith. These volunteers are effective because of the witness of their lives, not because of their responses to census questions.
Still others disqualify themselves because they lack a degree in theology or simply feel that they “don’t know enough.” After 10 years spent in religious education, I can tell you that I still never feel I “know enough,” but I hope that it is the severe mercy that keeps me on my knees. Several years ago, when I was feeling burned out and at a loss for new ideas to incorporate into my work, I took that sentiment to the Lord in Eucharistic Adoration. What the Lord gave me, very gently, were the words, “It’s an honor that I entrust those souls to you.” It was just the nudge I needed to remember that it is not my work, but His. I get to cooperate with the Lord, and He gives me everything I need to perform to His standard. Likewise, the volunteer catechist is supported by the parish director of religious education, priests, veteran catechists and assistants, and the teacher guides written with volunteers in mind, and of course, Our Lord Himself.
Finally, a plea on behalf of parents: it’s a tough world out there. Parents are desperate for role models for their children and for community that teaches them — by example — to model their lives after the One who is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Many parents know that faith is important, but feel woefully inadequate to transmit it, or feel the effects of past wounds which keep them at a distance from it. The catechist carries the torch, is often the “first responder” to assist parents in their tremendous responsibility. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Those who look at the sun in a mirror, even if they do not look directly at the sky, see its radiance in the reflection just as truly as do those who look directly at the sun’s orb.” All Christians are called to be a mirror in some way. Is the Lord asking you to mirror Him as a catechist?
Susan Doyle is the Director of Religious Education at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Alexandria.